The initial launch date – or soft launch date – of a new game is always one of the most exciting times for any game developer. However, like anything else worthwhile, there are some important steps that you need to take in order to make sure you get it right.
It’s when you get to show the project that you’ve been working so hard on to the world! And then gain important insights with relatively low risk into its future success and any changes that need to be made for this and any future games you work on.
Defining The Soft Launch
Essentially, a soft launch is releasing the initial version of the game that’s ready for the public in a limited geographic area and with a fairly tight marketing budget. It’s meant to assess the potential audience, work out any bugs, and make any tweaks that might be necessary for the game to succeed with a broader reach. It’s the dress rehearsal before opening night and the scrimmage before a big game, all with the risk of putting yourself out there before the greater public.
A solid analytics set-up and the associated tracking and monitoring are naturally one of the key components of your game’s soft launch, as they’ll be largely what you use to assess the success of the launch and make any necessary updates. After all, you’ll need that data and those metrics in order to determine if your game will be successful, if you need to make major changes, or if you just might need to move on to a future project. Generally, soft launching a game includes five distinct aspects or steps.
The Five Steps Of A Successful Soft Launch
- Make Sure The Build Is Solid
- Make The Necessary Updates
Planning Out Your Soft Launch
It all starts with a (nearly) completed game and a plan. Set out your geographic areas, time frame for your launch, your budget, and your tracking and analytics plan, of course! After all, the planning of the soft launch sets the stage for your game’s future, so of course you want it to be a positive one. A little bit of organization during this early period goes a long way towards your game’s success or failure, as well as you and your team making the correct decisions for it’s future.
Location, Location, Location
Determining the limited geographic area you’re going to make your game available in is a complex equation. You want a high concentration of your potential audience, so demographics matter, along with the devices they use and the language(s) they speak really matter. This study from Tech in Asia does an excellent job of explaining how to choose your soft launch geos. You should also determine the minimum and maximum numbers of users required to test your game. Too few and you won’t get an accurate picture of the game’s commercial viability, too many and the game soft launch will go over budget. What’s the sweet spot?
Generally geographically dense areas like cities or small, mostly urbanized countries where the majority of people speak the language your game is produced in make for a wise choice, particularly because individuals in larger cities tend to have a greater concentration of smartphone and/or tablet use. You also want to consider your game’s primary target market and their location if you’re focusing on a specific language or group – and that holds true whether or not your game is eventually meant for worldwide distribution, presuming the soft launch goes swimmingly.
Timing Is Key
Once you know where in the world will be lucky enough to be part of your soft launch, you need to set up a calendar. And timing is key – the date of the initial launch and the time of the year that you launch matter, but the length of time that your game is in soft launch mode is even more important.
It’s often said that 40 days is a good time period to get some solid data for a soft launch; it’s long enough to gain some traction and allow players to return to the game for multiple sessions, but short enough to make the most of a limited marketing budget. However, some very successful games have been perfected over the course of longer soft launch periods, taking up to six months to be officially launched in all markets.
You need to keep two things in mind when creating your soft launch calendar – the amount of time you need as it relates to your budget (consider your spend per day, and multiply it by the number of days you have in your soft launch calendar), and the amount of time you think the average user will take to get a good feel for your game.
Which takes us to the next point – creating your budget. Granted, some of this depends on your available resources, of course, and the marketing tactics that you plan to use.
For instance, if finances aren’t much of a problem, you’ll probably be more likely to consider paid ads on social media and various other platforms, along with perhaps paying some industry influencers. On the other hand, if you’re looking to market your game with a minimal budget, you are probably more likely to focus on things like social media promotions and PR-type activities (that said, no matter what your budget, always leverage your social connections if you can).
An easy formula to use when you’re planning your budget is to consider the maximum number of versions or iterations you’re prepared to support multiplied by the number of users you’re expecting to gain during each iteration multiplied by the cost per install (we’ve already defined a list of the most important mobile app KPIs you might find useful at some point during this process).
App Store And Play Store Optimization
One other thing to consider when creating your marketing budget and plan is how you’re going to set up your App Store or Play Store profile to be the most appealing it can possibly, along with gathering those all important initial reviews. Your logo/icon and thumbnails should be on point, and this is when you want to consult with the smartest copywriter you know to make sure your descriptions are both compelling and accurately reflect your game’s actual experience.
What’s more, once you get those coveted reviews, make sure you thank the ones that give your game a positive review, and reach out to those who didn’t like it – you can learn a lot more from negative reviews even though it might sting, and use those learnings to improve your game going forward!
Of course we’re going to mention analytics! In fact, having detailed analytics and paying attention to your stats and data might be most important during the soft launch period, when any shifts or changes can foresee your game’s future. It’s a little cheesy, but you can almost think of analytics as a crystal ball and you are the fortune teller who can use what you see in it to predict the future. Well, the future of your game, at least.
Cheesiness aside, you’ll to make sure you’ve got the most important KPIs being tracked, including installs and the associated cost per install, session lengths, user retention, acquisition source, cost-per-acquisition, and more.
Know Your Goals
There are generally three main goals for a soft launch. The first is to understand if your game is technically sound, the second is to make sure your game can actively engage and retain players, and the third is to make sure it’s commercially viable. In fact, the whole soft launch plan should point to accomplishing those goals and track the KPIs that go along with achieving them.
Perfecting Your Build
Granted, your game probably isn’t 100% perfect – that’s why it’s called a soft launch, performed in order to allow you to work out the bugs first. However, you shouldn’t launch your game with any known faults or issues; soft launches are for discovering new bugs to fix before showing your game off to the broader world, not for fixing known problems.
After all, even though many players are forgiving of some technical issues if they are aware it’s a soft launch, if a game has too many bugs, chances are they’ll churn and uninstall before you get a chance to get some solid data or feedback about the game to begin with.
Marketing Your Game: Getting It Out There
Once you’re sure that your game’s build is ready for a wider audience than your development team and perhaps your friends and family, it’s time to launch it to the outside world. And that requires a two-pronged approach. The first is making sure that your app store pages are set up perfectly as previously mentioned, and that you’re also encouraging reviews at some point in your game in order to get those all important early positives.
Next, you need to introduce your game to people outside of the app stores – chances are they won’t discover and install it on their own. Hence executing on the aforementioned marketing activities (see the budget section above) and carefully tracking ROI as you go.
You should also take advantage of any existing customer base, mailing lists, social following, or similar group that you may have access from previous game launches or similar. Anyone who’s already a fan of your work and receptive to your message should definitely be a part of your soft launch if at all possible. Offer them early access, special features/loot/weapons, discounts, or whatever else you think might get them on board.
Measuring As You Go
The two most important metrics to track during your game’s soft launch (and in general, really) are installs/downloads and user retention. The first one should be obvious – you need to keep track of the number of users that install your game during its first days and weeks out there in the world. Measuring the number of installs/downloads against the marketing spend – calculating the ROI – is especially important in order to keep track of the effectiveness of your marketing activities before you spend more time or energy than necessary on tactics that aren’t working.
Second and perhaps even more vital to the success of your soft launch is keeping track of uninstalls as well as non-active users. This might be more important because as every developer knows, it is the number of active users who are regularly participating, gathering loot, leveling up, making purchases, generating ad impressions, and more that is what really makes a game commercially viable.
How Your Analytics Can Help You Track Player Retention
Smart and organized usage of your analytics program can help track retention in any number of ways, but you need to stay on top of your data. When engagement starts dropping – player sessions shorten, number of sessions in a day lessen, or players start going multiple days without logging in, then you know you need to make some changes – and make them soon when you’re still in the ultra-sensitive soft launch phase.
Of course, even the best analytics set-up won’t be able to tell exactly why players are leaving, but it will be able to point to problematic spots where players tend to drop off and quit or abandon the game. Then it’s up to you to delve into the game play experience and see how you can fix the trouble spots or alleviate the drop off. For instance, if players are mostly quitting on a certain level or when they reach certain area of your game’s world, there may be a bug or something else that needs to be adjusted.
Within your analytics you can track how many people open the app multiple times as well as where they drop off; you can also track how many users install the game and actually get through the initial tutorial versus dropping off somewhere in the middle. And therefore make any adjustments you might need to make quickly during the relatively low-risk soft launch period.
Optimizing Your User’s First Experience
The first thirty to sixty seconds or so that your users have your game open post-install might be the most important. After all, it’s essential to make a good first impression as well as make sure your players are properly set up to have the best possible experience when playing.
If possible, test your tutorial on as many people as you can first, even and especially those who are unfamiliar with your game (get your friends and family to help if you’re indie developer). In fact, the unfamiliar can be the best way to see if it’s easy to understand.
Once your game is in the soft launch phase, you should monitor how users navigate through each phase of the tutorial and see if there is any consistent drop off at any key points. And in which case, you should update the tutorial to help better guide your users to starting the game and hopefully becoming regular players.
Versioning and Iterations
One more thing that you should do before you soft launch is set a hard line for the number of new versions of your game that you’ll create during your soft launch. It’s one thing to tweak a few issues that you missed prior to launching (after all, no QA is perfect, especially with smaller teams), but it’s another to launch multiple updates that shift the game into new directions. At least, that might mean you want to take a step back from the public and figure out your direction before you launch it for real and burn more capital and energy.
Going Back To The Beginning: The Five Steps Of A Successful Soft Launch
As we said at the beginning, there are five steps to a successful game soft launch, and they are:
- Share It With The World Via Marketing
- Study Your Analytics
- Satisfy Your Audience’s Need For Updates, But Not At Your Own Expense
However, once you’re through with these five steps, it’s time to determine whether or not your game is commercially viable. And that might be a subject for a future post! But until that time, don’t neglect a few key elements of a soft launch….
Things That Even Smart Developers Often Forget During Soft Launches
Let’s conclude with things that develops often forget during soft launches. Without further adieu, as you go through the five steps, you definitely shouldn’t forget about these things…
- Setting Up Tracking
- Monitoring Analytics Reports
- Neglecting An Existing Audience Or Customer Base
- Using Engagement Data To Your Advantage For Quick Bug Fixes
- Monitoring And Reaching Out To App Store Reviewers
Got it? Now you’re ready to follow these steps and soft launch your game. Just don’t forget any of the final elements, and it wouldn’t hurt to go through your analytics with the kind of exacting mentality that even the strictest auditor would celebrate. Best of luck during perhaps the most exciting phase of game development!